The death penalty is one of the most divisive issues in America. It has been practiced almost continually since the founding of this nation and Gallop polls have shown Americans in favor of the death penalty – most of the time by a substantial margin. But history and poll numbers are no comfort when human lives are affected to the degree that they are by an issue such as this. The death penalty shakes us down our moral core as citizens and a nation.
A trait that separates America from most of the world is our sense of justice. Justice for the little guy wronged, and justice for the victim that can no longer speak. But the sword of justice has two edges. Should we as a society seek the ultimate justice for the victim, or should we protect a fellow citizen from state sponsored murder?
The sheer cost of bringing a death penalty case to trial is often cited as a reason for abolishment. With multiple automatic appeals built into the system, the cost of a death penalty case quickly runs into millions of dollars. Proponents point out that the costs cited by anti death penalty groups fail to include the cost of major medical care, dozens of lawsuits, and the criminal enterprises that come with a criminal being in prison for the rest of their lives. They claim these costs far exceed that of the total amount to execute a criminal.
Advocates of the death penalty also point out the lack of recidivism from executed criminals. They reinforce their point with cases where a paroled killer kills again, such as in the Danny Rouse case. Rouse spent 26 years in prison for killing a 5 year old by slitting his throat. 7 months after being paroled, he abducted and murdered a 16 year old girl. About 8% of the murders currently on death row had committed at least one murder before the one they were sentenced to death for. Death penalty opponents point out that this is a rare occurrence and blame the correctional systems lack of rehabilitation as the true cause.
The most powerful argument in the death penalty debate is that of wrongful executions. It is relatively certain that some prisoners were wrongfully executed before the Supreme Court effectively placed a moratorium on executions while its constitutionality was ruled on in 1967. In 1977 with new layers of review and appeals executions resumed, and in 1992 yet another layer of protection was added with DNA testing. Over 15 convicted men facing the death penalty have since been exonerated with DNA evidence. However, The Death Penalty Information Center has published a list of 8 inmates it believes have been wrongfully executed, some with rather compelling evidence. As of yet, no court has ruled that an inmate has been wrongfully executed.
For the foreseeable future the death penalty is here to stay, driven by the demand for justice for the victims, even if the judicial system has proven less than perfect.